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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 9, 2002

10-year-old Keck still rules

By Frederic H. Chaffee
Director of the W.M. Keck Observatory

On Sunday, the W.M. Keck Observatory will hold a public open house on the Keck campus in Waimea on the Big Island to celebrate the 10th anniversary of "first light" for the world's first 10-meter telescope.

As a buildup to that big day, evening public lectures by two of the world's foremost astronomers — Dr. Richard Ellis of Caltech and Dr. Joseph Miller of the University of California — will be presented at the Gates Performing Arts Center on the Hawai'i Preparatory Academy campus at 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday.

Ten years ago, the world's newest and largest telescope was seen as a daring and very uncertain technological gamble. On April 14, 1992, Keck I was first pointed toward the heavens, and the astronomical world watched expectantly to see whether the gamble would pay off. Four short years later, close on the heels of Keck I's early success, Keck II joined its older sister in the exploration of the universe.

Today, the twin Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea are recognized as among the most important and productive in history. Astronomers are very fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct observations from this mountain, the best observatory site in the Northern Hemisphere.

We are mindful of the very significant cultural and religious role that the summit of Mauna Kea has always played within the indigenous Hawaiian community, and we are determined to continue to treat Mauna Kea with the respect and dignity it richly deserves.

Observations made with these marvelous instruments have revolutionized many aspects of astronomy. In 2001, a blue-ribbon panel of U.S. and Canadian astronomers reviewing Keck's scientific contributions summed up the observatory's international standing in two words: "Keck rules."

What a pleasure it is to look back on the first decade of the Keck Observatory. In that decade, hundreds of astronomers from all over the world have used the Keck telescopes to study everything from objects in "our own back yard" to those at the farthest reaches of the universe.

Starting close to home, 10 years ago, only nine planets were known to exist — those in our own solar system. Today the "planet count" is approaching 100, with Saturn-sized and larger planets having been detected around 70 other stars out to a distance of 250 light-years (1,500 trillion miles) from our own sun. Most of these planets were detected using the Keck I telescope.

The measurements required are of exquisite precision. The planets reveal their existence by their gravitational pull on their parent star, causing it to wobble at a speed of a brisk human walk. Imagine being able to measure a star 1,500 trillion miles away wobbling at walking speed.

At the other end of the universe, the record for the most distant object known has been set several times by Keck astronomers. The most recent, a galaxy at a distance of 15.5 billion light years from Earth, was reported by University of Hawai'i astronomers early in 2002.

These represent but two examples of major discoveries made by the Keck telescopes in their first decade. Other discoveries, such as evidence for an accelerating (not just an expanding) universe, evidence supporting the Big Bang theory through the detection of material created in the first few seconds after "the beginning" and evidence for a whole new class of cool stars — in the transition zone between stars and planets — have all been made by astronomers using the Keck telescopes.

The observatory's success is a tribute to:

  • The W.M. Keck Foundation, which had the wisdom and faith to fund the construction of this visionary "gamble."
  • The University of California and the California Institute of Technology, the founding partners for the observatory, whose astronomers, along with their University of Hawai'i colleagues, have made so many discoveries with the world's two largest telescopes.
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which joined the Keck partnership in 1996 and has pioneered the use of the Keck telescopes as an interferometer.
  • The many men and women — scientists, engineers, technicians and many others — who have worked for the Keck Observatory from its earliest days right to the present to make this dream a living reality.
  • All of our Big Island friends, neighbors and colleagues — businesses, schools, community organizations, county officials and others — with whom we work so closely.

It is with great appreciation that we thank them all on this 10th anniversary celebration. They have all helped create an ennobling enterprise of the human spirit that will live in history.

We are gratified to be able to share the excitement of discovery with the general public at this special time in Keck Observatory history. Please join us.